Studying at the Sorbonne: Making Money

Save money, make money
Work hard, play hard. No need to sacrifice everything if you're earning pennies...

How does a student survive in Paris? I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, and I thought it might be useful to share a bit of info to dispel any notions that we students are all funded by our parents. That is certainly not the case for me and nearly all of the international students I know.

Clearly, it is very possible to live in Paris as a student. Why else would it be the top city for students, in this year’s QS rankings? 

But here’s the thing – nothing s handed to you, and no one will give you the answers if you don’t ask. So since so many people have been asking me, I thought I’d give back a bit of insider info in a nice, convenient, English-speaking manner. While no means exhaustive or universally-applicable, this list should get the ball rolling for any student wannabes in France.

The Cost

Just for a refresher, check out my post earlier this year on the costs of living in Paris and attending the Sorbonne. Some things (tuition) are cheap. Other things (rent) can be expensive. So prepare a budget and stick to it. 

Making Money

So here’s the deal. Non-EU students with a visa can only work so much (about 20 hours a week) with a contract. What’s that mean? Imagine you get a job at a café, a shop, or even a place like Starbucks, the employer can only legally hire you for 20 hours a week. Imagine you earn maybe 10 euros an hour (SMIC, or minimum wage, is 9.53 euros an hour in 2014), take out taxes, and you have probably somewhere around 150 euros a week in the bank if you’re lucky.

That’s not a whole lot, I know. Especially if your rent is 600 euros, because you know, food is fun sometimes. This is why it helps to save up for a year or two at the Sorbonne. But for those who think, “Oh man, I’m screwed,” don’t give up so easily. While many students do manage a meager existence through such low-paying, part-time jobs, there are other options instead of, or in addition to these

Picnic to save money
You don't need a lot of money to enjoy Paris...

A “Job”

So if you want stable income, get a legitimate job with a contract. A contract will either be a CDI (an indeterminate, or endless contract) or a CDD (a contract with a timeframe built in). If you have a CDI at a café, you’re set, you get your healthcare more or less taken care of (though you’ll pay that at the Sorbonne, too, so be sure to request a refund from the school’s insurance if you do have a job with a contract!).

In this situation, you know how much money you’ll have to work with each month. And you won’t be able to get fired too easily, either.

You’ll have to work around your school schedule, so work that out in advance as well. Usually there are few night classes at the Sorbonne, so an evening job isn’t a terrible idea. Homework isn’t crazy, and many programs don’t require much reading, but it depends on your program of course.


Now imagine you want to make a bit more money. For example, I liked to be able to put my heat on for a few minutes in the winter, and I also sprang for socks without holes in them from time to time.

So I wanted to earn a bit more. I began freelancing, working jobs around my schedule, and negotiating fees beyond the minimum wage or at least working as much as I wanted without being limited by a 20 hour contract.

The pros? You can work as much as you want and earn more money.

The cons? There is no stability, no contract, and no guarantee you’ll have a certain amount of money each month.

There are a few ways to do this. First, you can work directly for a family as an au pair (nanny), an English tutor, or a babysitter. These jobs tend to work well with a university student schedule and can pay handsomely if you find the right family.

Craigslist, posts at American schools, or even just word of mouth are the best way to poke around for such a job. Once you get into the French family business, it becomes easier to find other families to hire you.

Secondly, other people work under the table for various companies (usually found on Craigslist again, but be careful!) earning cash for services often related to the service industry. Sometimes you’ll get paid into a British or American bank account instead of into your French one. Sometimes you’ll get paid into PayPal.

There are many ways that people go around the “customary” (read: legal) ways of paying you. Be wary of such jobs since they rarely provide any benefits and you have no leverage.

At least families are usually nice and depend on you. Businesses will more likely exploit you if they are going under the table.

Then there is a third way to work as a freelancer – become what the French call an autoentrepreneur
Essentially it’s a fiscal status that creates you – and just you – into your own company. It gives you a tax ID number that you can use to create invoices, pay taxes, and work legally on your own terms.

Legally working for yourself? Yes – you need not have a storefront or an office to have a company. You can do it from home, in pajamas, at 3AM in the morning if you want.

What does this look like in practice? If you are an autoentrepreneur and you want to offer design services for a company, translate documents for a business, bake cakes for holiday parties, act as a consultant for a company, or provide any other type of service that an organization might need, you can do it – legally!

Essentially you are a subcontractor who comes in for a project, fulfills a need, and then moves on, or else provides further assistance for the same client.

You agree on a price, you create a bill for them, and they can legally pay you. It’s then up to you to enter your earnings online and report them to the government (an easy process). It’s a pretty cool system that has allowed me do work for plenty of various employers – or actually, clients – in Paris.

Work hard, take naps
Yes, it will be tiring...

Be careful, however, that a company doesn’t hire you in a sort of 9-5 position, telling you that you need to enroll as an autoentrepreneur. The idea is to be a freelancer, not an office worker. If you are working an office job and getting paid as an autoentrepreneur, this is basically the employer’s way of hiring cheap labor, and it’s technically illegal. They don’t have to pay the taxes to keep you as a worker, including your health benefits. That becomes your responsibility.

Why work a regular job if you don’t get any of the perks???

Regardless, the status is a great way around the fixed income of a 20-hour week, or a great complement to it. It allowed me to work at night in a pizzeria and on weekend give tours for a company and earn extra money. Win-win!

Multiple Incomes

I guess I should stress that for real poor students, or those with no savings or parental financing, prepare to work multiple jobs. Try to have multiple sources of income in order to be able to live comfortably and not always be stressing about money.

It’s better in my opinion to be busy and know that you can pay for dinner than to have a lot of free time to “study” (read: waste time on Facebook) and be worried about money issues.

I found that working more forced me to be more organized, and my grades actually did better as I had less time to dedicate to school during the busier periods. If you’re the opposite, plan accordingly…

Markets offer cheaper food
Earning less? Learn to eat cheap...

Managing Expectations

Last but not least, French students don’t carry Louis Vuitton bags or go for dinners at Michelin-starred restaurants every week. Most Parisians don’t, for that matter. Prepare to cook for yourself, to go to the market, to buy clothes at H&M or Uniqlo, and to drink cheap wine instead of cocktails.

You’re here to study, to get a degree, and to reap the benefits of higher education once your diploma is in hand. That dreamy Paris in the movies is going to have to wait. You have some Nietzsche to read…